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What is a Redneck?

By J. Leach
Updated: May 17, 2024

Redneck is a pejorative slang term for poor white rural farmers, mainly from the south of the United States. The term originated from the idea that the farmers were often working outdoors, in bent over positions, that caused their necks to be sunburned. This creating a literal red neck. Usage of the word in this sense appears in written documents in the 1830s. The term has a mixed history — some view the phrase as derogatory, whereas others view such categorization with pride. The origin of the term certainly started out as derogatory.

After the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, many small farms in the south faced hard economic times. Those having difficulty subsisting were often categorized by various pejorative and derogatory labels like cracker, white trash, poor white trash, and redneck. These terms were used to slander this economically-challenged group, and mark them as being beneath other economic and social people.

In the 19th century, there was a turn in how terms like redneck were used. The word redneck, in particular, was no longer viewed purely as slander, but as a badge of pride. Among those who shared this sentiment, it stood for someone who believed in self-determination and individual freedom.

In the 1970s, the term again took on a derogatory meaning as it was used to label anyone who was deemed to be unsophisticated or intellectually inferior. Some blame mass media for spreading the derogatory stereotype of an anachronistic rural farmer, who is completely at odds with urban life and modernity. The stereotype, however, no longer applied to just southern U.S. farmers, but anyone from anywhere. Although today, someone is more likely to be labeled or identify as a redneck if they live in a rural area.

The American comedian Jeff Foxworthy is considered by many to be partially responsible for the widespread use of the word redneck in popular culture. In 1993, he released a comedy album entitled You Might Be a Redneck If…, which started a kind of redneck fad in the United States. His brand of comedy, which centers on the working class, generally appeals to the common man.

Some believe that rednecks are a real cultural entity that has been subjected to ethnic satire that has muddied the true identity of the group. These people feel that the group is in danger of being nothing more than a stereotype and derogatory label, rather than a distinct group with a set of beliefs. Proponents argue that rednecks are no longer bound by geographical borders, but are now defined by their shared belief in a particular way of life. This is said to be one that eschews suburban and urban living for hard work in small towns or rural areas, and includes a passion for freedom and self-determination.

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Discussion Comments
By anon335472 — On May 21, 2013

I heard that the expression "redneck" also came from the fact that the rural population of the US South were also keen church goers and rubbed their necks clean (until red) before church on Sundays. Is this belief wrong?

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